When Toby Young tweeted about Claudia Winkleman’s breasts and his rather graphic appreciation of Helen Mirren, he probably didn’t give much heed to whether his comments would offend anyone. He was an outspoken but relatively low profile journalist who liked to stir things up. But following his appointment to the board of the Office for Students, his tweets became ammunition for people opposed to him taking the role.
Despite apologising for his “politically incorrect” comments, receiving the support of Boris Johnson and apparently deleting tens of thousands of old posts, Young eventually stepped down from the organisation claiming that the furore had “become a distraction” to the work of the body.
In truth there were a number of reasons why the free school champion was a controversial choice for the job, mostly to do with his politics and his views on education and class, all of which could be found in his magazine articles and TV interviews. However, his colourful Twitter output became a useful stick for his critics and the media to beat him with.
It’s also a salutary lesson that “tweeting while watching telly”, as one MP supporter of Young put it, is a dangerous activity, because an off the cuff comment on social media may one day come back to bite you on the backside, whether you’re famous or not. As we’ve seen recently, journalists are more than happy to search back for years in somebody’s social media timeline to find an off-colour comment that was probably initially considered ‘bantz’.
In a world where just liking somebody else’s posts is enough to generate news headlines, what people say on social media carries weight and could be riskier than a radio interview. At least on radio you have the chance to clarify what you mean, whilst on Twitter it’s there in glowing pixels, to be shared around the world instantly with no context whatsoever.
Hiding behind social media security settings is no guarantee of privacy either, because if people can’t share the original post, they can usually take a screenshot and spin it out into the ether. The same is true of messaging apps like WhatsApp and even good old-fashioned texts, with many private exchanges finding their way into highly damaging news stories over the past few months.
But these risks aren’t limited to politicians, celebrities and YouTubers – inappropriate comments and images on social media can damage companies as well. Much of my time at Nationwide was spent working with HR to deal with stuff posted on social media by employees that could have potentially been damaging to the brand. Whether it was a staff member who had called in sick, but then gleefully posted pictures of their shopping trip on Facebook, usually being grassed up by their own colleagues; hate speech posted on forums by people who had put the building society as their place of work in their profiles; or a senior manager who made a “joke” about the murder of Reeva Steenkamp on a Twitter account he also used to disseminate motivational words of wisdom to his team, there was always a steady stream of staff disciplinary procedures linked to social media.
The much used disclaimer that “these views are my own and not the views of my employer” doesn’t hold any water, either legally or usually in terms of a company’s employment policies. Most businesses take the view that your words and actions on social media can bring your employer into disrepute in the same was as getting into a fight down the local pub could, and there is plenty of case law to back that up.
The good news is that the way to reduce the risk of your social media posts damaging you or your employer is really quite simple – don’t be an idiot! If it’s something you wouldn’t say to your boss or to a customer, then don’t put it on social media. If it’s a photograph you’d be embarrassed or ashamed to see in the Daily Mail, then don’t put it on social media. And if it’s a view or an opinion that would be likely to upset your colleagues or get you into trouble with HR if you said it in the office, then keep it to yourself.
Of course not being an idiot is sometimes easier said than done, especially at a time when so many people live their lives through social media and over-sharing is the norm. That’s why it’s important to have a code of conduct for staff in place, developed with HR, alongside a policy governing a company’s own social media activity.
Importantly, employees should also be educated about the risks of social media, to themselves and to the company they work for, with examples of good and bad practice. Most people don’t set out to try and damage their career or their employer with a dodgy bit of tweeting, and in fact staff can be very powerful advocates for a brand on social media, if done correctly. But it seems that all too often people forget common sense and decorum when they pick up their phones and open up Twitter.
One of the best pieces of social media advice I ever saw was from a famous beer brand, which ended its employee guide with the simple line, “don’t drink and tweet”. Perhaps that should be updated to “Don’t be like Toby – think before you tweet.”